SUN IN MY SMILE
an interview with featured songmaker, Kyshona Armstrong
Kyshona Armstrong’s music is a blend of powerful forces: it embodies a rich and complex cultural history, yet it is also intensely personal. Her songwriting resonates with emotion and spiritual life, but it is also deeply physical, animated with the strength of her voice and body. Her songs are compassionate and thoughtful, at they same time they are just a pleasure to hear, to clap and stomp along with in your kitchen or at a concert.
Armstrong synthesizes all that power into a most simple format: a woman and a guitar, making music. She raises her voice to tell the truth about her life and experience, and it is a gift for those of us who hear and connect with her. It was our pleasure to interview Kyshona Armstrong for this issue of Cordella.
CORDELLA MAGAZINE: What were your first experiences with listening to and performing music?
KYSHONA ARMSTRONG: I was blessed to have two sets of grandparents that sang in the church choirs, and a father that played guitar for the church gospel quartet. I spent a lot of time in my childhood sitting in the choir loft or in the back pew at church watching my family lead the congregation in song. It makes perfect sense then, that my first experience performing music was in church with the jubilee choir... while sitting next to my mom and grandmother.
CM: What musicians inspired you in your youth?
KA: Growing up, I pretty much listened to whatever my parents or grandparents were listening too. There was a lot of The Staples Singers, Mighty Clouds of Joy, The Winans, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin. When I was able to purchase my own music, I veered more towards Sheryl Crow, Monie Love, MC Lyte and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Pretty broad spectrum there.
CM: You hadn’t experienced singing in front of a crowd until your senior year of high school. How did it feel that first time? Did you have the sense that you had found your path?
KA: Ha! Yes, my first experience singing solo in front of a crowded auditorium was with a ballsy rendition of Patti LaBelle's "New Attitude." At that point, I had only put myself "out there" on the piano and oboe... never with my voice. Singing... egh eghm... belting with my best Patti attitude, feather boa and back up singers was absolutely TERRIFYING. I was used to blending my voice in a choir, not commanding a room with it. My own family had never heard me sing, so it was just as much a surprise to them as it was to me. Sadly, it took another 3 years before I trusted my voice enough to sing on a stage in college.
CM: I understand you play the oboe and steel drums in addition to the acoustic guitar! What attracted you to those first two instruments?
KA: I think it all comes down to the word "unique." In elementary school, I was chosen to play the clarinet. I cried because EVERYONE was playing the clarinet. I wanted the difficult instrument that only 2 other people were playing... and I wanted to conquer it. So oboe it was. I believe it was the same with steel drums. I wanted to join a percussion ensemble but I already knew how to play marimba and xylophone. I thought, "In what other space do you have access to steel drums?" I absolutely had to take advantage of the moment and join the steel drum ensemble.
CM: As someone raised and still living in the South, do you feel a connection with the musical history of the region? How does this play out in your own songwriting and performing?
KA: I definitely feel like my southern upbringing plays a roll in my music. The simplicity of the Blues and Appalachian music lends its way to my performance preference of just a simple guitar, vocals and ankle bells around my right foot. I also love incorporating gospel influences with vocal harmonies in my live and recorded music. One of my favorite things to find are new versions of old traditional songs (like Nina Simone's version of See-Line Woman). I love covering these songs, because eventually I find that an old traditional song has influenced a new song I am writing.
CM: What inspires you when writing? What are your primary concerns as a musician?
KA: I am heavily inspired and influenced by what is happening in the world in relation to social awareness and stories of personal growth. Whether its world news, experiences of friends or people that I meet in life, or my very own experiences... if it inspires, I feel I must write about it. As a musician, I feel it is my duty to address issues that others may be struggling with through song. I genuinely feel that music is the best method to reach a diverse group of people.
CM: Tell us about the album art on your EP, Home Again.
KA: The artwork for Home Again was created by Atlanta artist/designer, Jenn Moye. Home Again represented a musical return to my roots as well as a return to myself. I've always felt as though I have been carrying the weight of my ancestors and heritage with me in my everyday interactions. The album art represents the balance of my roots/heritage with the world I am living in today.
CM: Tell us a bit about your background as a music therapist. What attracted you to this field? What did you learn about the creative process by collaborating with people who were musically untrained?
KA: I was a music therapist in Atlanta and Athens, GA for 12 years. I worked in early childhood intervention, mental healthcare facilities, county jails and youth detention centers, as well as nursing homes and geriatric hospitals. I first heard of music therapy when I was a junior in high school. I wanted to study psychology, but I also knew that I needed to take advantage of any music scholarships that I received. I heard of a Music Therapist at the hospital in downtown Columbia, SC, asked her if I could interview her and shadow her for a day on the children's unit... and then I was sold. Music Therapy was still a relatively new field and I loved the idea of being in a profession that still had a lot of room to grow. The idea of healing and retraining behaviors through music sounded amazing to me.
Music Therapy is a profession where you focus solely on what the patient or client needs so that they have the ability to communicate their desires as effectively as possible. When I wrote music or played in bands with my patients, the focus was more on "how can I make them as successful as possible" during this activity. At that point, songwriting rules get thrown out the window. Someone playing an instrument with proper technique isn't as important if you're working with people with physical handicaps. Your professional opinion of songs having a verse, chorus and bridge will have to take a back seat. Many of the songs I wrote with my patients turned out to be more like mantras that they could recreate and sing on their own, without the help of a music therapist. A person sharing a song that is 100% their words holds a lot of power and offers a great self esteem boost. That, to me, is more rewarding than how professional a song may sound.
CM: Can you describe how music has been therapeutic for you in your own life?
KA: Music has always been my escape. When I got home from school, I would run to the piano and create stories to go along with the music I was learning or writing. It was like I was playing the soundtrack to my own internal film. The only reason I started writing music with lyrics was because I was overwhelmed at work and needed to get my feelings off my chest. I sat down one day and used my own songwriting techniques that I've used on my patients on myself. Since then, writing music has been my way with dealing with and processing what is happening in the world around me.
CM: What are you working on now? What’s coming up next for you?
KA: At the moment, I'm in Nashville writing and learning from other artists that I admire and look up to. I've been fortunate to write with songwriters that inspire me and push me creatively. I'm looking forward to releasing some new music in the upcoming year. Until then, I am excitedly planning for a prison tour in September through the nonprofit organization Send Musicians to Prison.
Kyshona created this brilliant mix tape for us, featuring artists who have inspired her work and personal journey. I cannot stop listening to it! Especially Wildbirds & Peacedrums, which is quite possibly my new favorite thing. Enjoy!